The Divine Comedy: II. Your soul has been assailed by cowardice

“Dante before the Lion” by Gustave Doré

Bertrand Russell was quoted to have said, “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” A fitting retort was given by Electra (Sophocles), “I admire you for your prudence. For your cowardice I hate you.”

In Canto II of Inferno, there is another brilliant example of a woman putting a man to shame for his cowardice.

Our narrator Dante was reluctant to embark on the journey through inferno and purgatory to paradise. After listening to his excuses, Virgil told him plainly that he was a coward, although in not so harsh terms (which I found hilarious on first reading):

“If I have understood what you have said,” replied the shade of that great-hearted one, “your soul has been assailed by cowardice, which often weighs so heavily on a man –distracting him from honorable trials–as phantoms frighten beasts when shadows fall.

Virgil then told Dante he was sent by Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, who for the sake of Love descended from Paradise to Inferno where Virgil was, and set him to help. Why was she not afraid of the descent?

“One ought to be afraid of nothing other than things possessed of power to do us harm, but things innocuous need not be feared.”

Here I seem to hear the voice of Plato speaking from the beyond. In Laches, Plato writes that courage is “the knowledge of nearly every good and evil without reference to time”, the knowledge of which things are dangers and which are not. If a man is fearful of the good, of the things he shall not be afraid, he is ignorant, just as “phantoms frighten beasts when shadows fall”. Cowardice, according to Plato, is a type of ignorance, and therefore cowards are not to be ridiculed nor despised, but rather pitied, just like the masses who commit injustice out of ignorance.

Someone should have answered Russel, “For your ignorance, I pity you”.


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